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13 Oct 2005

Every Play Counts: Ballad of a Thin Man

by Michael David Smith

In Pro Football Prospectus 2005, we projected Kevin Jones of the Detroit Lions as the NFL's leading rusher. We've been hearing about it ever since.

True story: My wife, who's in law school, came home one day last week and told me that one of her fellow students “told me to tell you that he has Kevin Jones on two fantasy teams and he's not happy about it.�

Jones scored two touchdowns in Sunday's 35-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, which gave him a bit of fantasy value. But he gained only 58 yards on 26 carries, bringing him to a whopping 2.9 yards a carry for the season. Last year, no other running back had a higher percentage of his yards on double-digit runs; this year, Jones has just two runs over 10 yards and none over 15. There's something happening here, and we don't know what it is, do we, Mr. Jones?

After watching all 26 of his carries against Baltimore -- some good, most not so good -- I've identified seven reasons why the man who led the league in rushing over the second half of his first season hasn't accomplished anything through the first quarter of his second season. Here are some of the problems, which are related to Jones himself, his teammates, and his coaches:

1. New guard Rick DeMulling looks lost.

After a Dre Bly interception gave the Lions the ball on the 25-yard line to start their second possession, Jones took a handoff on the first play and Ravens safety B.J. Ward drilled him behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of three yards. Ward ran into the Lions' backfield directly through a spot vacated by DeMulling, who never saw him coming. The play called for Jones to run to the right, which means DeMulling should have taken a hard first step with his right foot and been in position to stop Ward dead in his tracks. Instead he took a lackadaisical step to the left and didn't do much of anything.

Later, on a first-and-10 from the Lions' 19, DeMulling pulled left to lead Jones on a sweep. DeMulling's job was to block Ray Lewis, and he never laid a finger on him. Lewis nailed Jones at the line of scrimmage.

DeMulling signed a two-year contract with the Lions this off-season after spending his first four years in the league with Indianapolis. The Lions expected him to be a major upgrade to their line. So far, he hasn't been.

2. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner's play calling is too predictable.

After another Bly interception, the Lions had first-and-10 from their own four-yard line. The Ravens were playing run all the way, thinking the Lions wouldn't dare call a pass and risk a sack in the end zone for a safety. The Ravens were right. Jones took the handoff and, facing eight in the box, got nowhere. On the next play, second-and-9, the Ravens again lined up in an eight-man front and held Jones to three yards. On third-and-6 Joey Harrington's pass was incomplete, and the Lions had to punt. Tollner's philosophy seems to be risk avoidance at all costs, and he doesn't seem to realize that there's nothing as risky as doing exactly what the defense expects.

Tollner's reputation as a coach who likes to stretch the field hasn't been borne out in his first season with Detroit. The Lions' passing game just can't connect on long balls, which means Harrington and the receivers aren't keeping the opposing safeties honest. Tollner and Steve Mariucci are longtime friends who have worked together in the past, and so far Lions fans like Mariucci's decision to appoint him as offensive coordinator about as much as conservative bloggers like George W. Bush's decision to appoint his longtime friend Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

3. Fullback Cory Schlesinger is out with a broken leg, and Paul Smith isn't up to the task of replacing him.

On first-and-10 from the Lions' 35, Smith lined up in front of Jones in the offset I formation, and Smith was supposed to lead Jones through the hole on the left side of the line. This is the type of play where, last season, Schlesinger would have exploded into an opposing linebacker and cleared a hole for Jones. Instead, Smith got to the line of scrimmage and stopped. Jones could either slow down or run into Smith, and he chose the former, which allowed Lewis to tackle him for a gain of a yard.

4. New right tackle Kelly Butler isn't ready to be an NFL starter.

On second-and-9 from the Lions' 36, Jones was alone in the backfield. He took a handoff and tried to run to the outside of Butler, but Butler didn't get any push at all, and when Jones couldn't turn the corner Ravens linebacker Tommy Polley stopped him for now gain.

The Lions drafted Butler in the sixth round in 2004 and kept him on the sidelines for the entire season, even though they knew they were going to allow last year's starting right tackle, Stockar McDougle, leave as a free agent. It would have made a lot more sense to give Butler some on-field experience as a rookie and figure out whether he's ready to play. He isn't.

5. The Lions' receivers look like pampered stars who think blocking is someone else's job.

On second-and-10 from the Lions' 32, Jones took a handoff and Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas was on top of him almost immediately, ready to tackle him behind the line of scrimmage. But Jones did a great job of breaking Thomas's tackle and could have turned a negative into a long gain. Unfortunately for the Lions, rookie receiver Mike Williams never bothered to block cornerback Dale Carter, and Carter tackled Jones for a gain of a yard. The Lions have invested three Top 10 picks in three receivers – Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams – who were the stars of their college teams. When you're the star, sometimes the coach looks the other way when you don't block, and that can be a tough habit to break. Jones is paying the price for the way his receivers were pampered in college.

6. Jones isn't finding holes.

On second-and-10 from the Lions' 42, Jones took a handoff and the Lions' line, for one of the few times on the day, opened a big hole on the left side. But Jones didn't follow his blockers, instead running directly into Ravens tackle Aubrayo Franklin. The best running backs are smart enough to understand that the biggest hole isn't always where the playbook says it will be and fast enough to get to the right place when the play develops unexpectedly. (Five years ago Marshall Faulk was unparalleled in his ability to find holes.) Jones looks like he decides in the huddle where he's going to run.

7. Jones isn't lowering his shoulder and initiating contact in traffic.

Anyone who saw the highlights of Jones' touchdown in Tampa Bay two weeks ago knows that he's capable of dishing out punishment, as he did to the Bucs' safety, Jermaine Phillips. But when Baltimore penalties allowed Jones to have four attempts from the one-yard line Sunday, he didn't put that skill to use. On one of his four carries, he tried to jump over the line and was met in mid-air by Lewis, and on the other three he kept his upper body completely vertical. In goal-line situations, a running back should be low to the ground, like he's pushing a car, not upright like he's going for a jog. After Jones' fourth attempt from the one-yard line he left with an injury, and on the next play backup Artose Pinner pushed his way through for the touchdown. (The Ravens challenged the play and lost; none of the TV cameras had as good a view as the official who signaled the touchdown.)

Before I conclude, a bit of a digression as I make three points about the Ravens:

  • I like the new 46 defense implemented by new Baltimore coordinator Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan, the inventor of the 46. The tackles, Kelly Gregg and Ma'ake Kemoeatu, are doing a better job of keeping blockers off Lewis than any tackles have done since Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl, and Lewis played the best game I've seen from him in a couple years. Actually, at times they did too good a job of keeping blockers off Lewis; each was called for holding twice when they grabbed Lions linemen to keep them away from Lewis.
  • If you have the chance to watch R.W. McQuarters' 49-yard punt return, keep an eye on Baltimore's No. 83, Daniel Wilcox. He had a clear shot at McQuarters, could have tackled him, and instead ran right past him to shove the Lions' Wali Rainer. What he was thinking, I can't imagine, but I've never seen anything like it.
  • Much has been made of the officiating, which included 21 penalties against the Ravens and a bizarre play where all 22 players thought Joey Harrington had thrown an incomplete pass, but all seven officials thought he had fumbled. (Jones was the first player to realize what the officials were thinking, and he advanced the ball to the 2-yard line.) Referee Mike Carey went to both sidelines in the first half and warned the coaches that he would be strictly enforcing personal fouls. Steve Mariucci, never known as a disciplinarian, did a much better job of keeping his players under control than did Brian Billick.

Back to Jones, and the question most people want to know: If I have him on my fantasy team, am I screwed? I don't think so. Schlesinger should be back from his broken leg soon, and Butler and DeMulling should get a better handle on how to play in Tollner's offense. The defenses on the Detroit schedule get a lot easier at mid-season, with games against bad run defenses (Falcons, Bengals) and bad overall defenses (Packers, Saints, Cardinals, and Vikings twice).

The other key is Jones himself. With 205 yards after four games, it's unlikely Jones will lead the league in rushing, but missing holes and failing to get low at the goal line are correctable problems. Jones' rookie year was characterized by a slow start and a fast finish. There's no reason his second season can't be the same.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 13 Oct 2005

27 comments, Last at 16 Oct 2005, 12:33am by Sid

Comments

1
by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 10:58am

Best EPC of the season (so far).

How much of Jones's struggles relate to the Detroit passing game?
I haven't seen Detroit this year, and won't have the chance until Thanksgiving. If the Lions passing game is as bad as I've been hearing, are opponents just loading the box against Jones and disregarding Harrington?

2
by MWojcik (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 11:46am

As an owner of Mr. Jones in my FFL, I appreciate MDS's efforts in breaking down his performance in the Baltimore game, but a few questions:

1. Was KJ used at all in the passing game last year? If so, what are the differences (so far) between last year and this year?

2. Did Harrington become more effective as KJ progressed last year? I ask because it looks as if Harrington has regressed, thus team's could stack the line and dare Harrington to beat them (a wise choice IMHO).

3. Off topic, but can anyone ever recall a division having such poor offenses as this year's NFC North?

Thanks and keep up the great work!

3
by Billybadass (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 11:49am

It was unbelievable to see Jones run a whole bunch into the line but why didn't try a fake into the line and do an end run?

4
by Jason (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 12:11pm

As for your comments about DeMulling, I think it shows just how good of a coach Howard Mudd is in Indianapolis. Seems he can plug in anyone to that offensive line and get them to produce at a high level.

5
by Nate (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 1:41pm

I stayed at a Holiday Inn express last night, so I'm just going to comment on your points:
1) DeMulling is real bad. Totally agree.
2) I get the feeling that Tollner is just a Mooch yes-man. I think the offensive game plan is 100% Mooch.
3) Paul Smith flat out sucks. I don't understand why he's on an NFL roster. He misses a ton of blocks, and doesn't bring anything else to the table.
4) I think Butler has been average, so apparently my opinion of him is a little higher than yours.
5) The Lions receivers sure don't seem to have a lot of heart, do they? They need to see the wizard.
6 and 7) I really can't say.

6
by Scott H (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 2:45pm

Nice article, but you forgot to mention one thing that isn't directly related to Kevin Jones' running, but needs to be stated in any article involving the Lions: Matt Millen blows.

7
by Ferg (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 2:56pm

At Virginia Tech Jones was famous for those plays where he'd run into a wall and scramble 25 yards side-to-side in order to move 5 yards forward. I imagine his coaches have told him that NFL defenses are too fast for that sort of thing and he's trying to correct it.

So I wonder if nr. 6 is just the result of trying too hard to be a disciplined runner. If so, I'd imagine that he'd close in on a happy medium as he gains experience.

8
by A. Diggity Dawg (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 3:24pm

I agree, this is the best EPC of the season by far. I like them all, but I like them better when they're about what they're supposed to be about, namely the plays on the field, and not a bunch of background followed by a description of one (1) of the plays on the field like another writer turned in earlier.

9
by Independent George (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 4:02pm

I love the introductory blurb. I can hear Dylan's voice, singing it in my head. Except he's also telling me to set fire to the building.

10
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 6:12pm

Personally, I think it's just the PFP curse. That, or the Lions just really suck, and seek to destroy any shred of competence in anyone who gets near them. Of course, that theory is completely incompatible with the Barry era, so maybe it's just a new twist on their old MO of wasting his supreme talent. So basically, Millen sucks.

DeMulling is an illustration of an underappreciated phenomenon - when a really well-run team gets rid of someone, and a really poorly-run team quickly snags him, he won't produce nearly as well as the new team expects. If a team that knows what it's doing lets someone walk, more often than not there's a good reason.

Maybe Wali Rainer is just a colossal douchebag?

I was also impressed with the Ravens' tackles, especially on the goal-line stand (on which the Lions got a gift TD, and who knows what would have happened on 4th down - you can't kick a FG there, but you can't come away with nothing, and what Mooch would do is anyone's guess). I was even more impressed that the officials called those holding penalties on them. It's a very seldom-called penalty, and a tactic that the big "blocker-eater" tackles should really use more until it is called regularly.

11
by Scott H (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 6:30pm

On the gift TD the Lions got: I know it's possible that the ref had a better angle than the rest of us, but it still looked like questionable TD, and to give a team that has failed to get in the endzone on five straight occasions a gift TD is completely unpardonable. Don't reward a team for sucking, and especially don't reward one of Matt Millen's teams for sucking. The guy gave hefty contracts to AZ Hakim, Bill Schroeder and Jacquez Green IN THE SAME OFFSEASON! I swear he makes his decisions after playing Madden.

12
by Tomas (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 6:57pm

Typical homer article. You can't accept that your favorite player is washed up, so you make a list of excuses for him. Face it, this team has 2-14 written all over them.

13
by Xao (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 7:10pm

Wow, the standards for being washed sure have changed when someone starts applying it to a second-year player. I do agree that MDS tends to overrate Detroit players though. His tireless paeans of praise for Joey Harrington are legendary around these parts.

14
by Tim L (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 8:30pm

Another fine, article, MDS. I like how you evaluated all the elements that go into the success of a play: Playcalling, runner alertness and determination, and blocking. I am surprised to see how poorly Jones has done so far this year. I consider him one the very best young backs in the league, and despite all the problems around him, expect his performance to pick up over the course of the year. Anyway, I hope so: The Lions are beyond due for a division title, and they look as good as anyone in the NFC North right now.

15
by Tim L (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 8:33pm

Independent George: So, how does it f-e-e-e-e-l, to be on your own?

16
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 8:53pm

Somewhat tangential to this article, GB has been doing a very good job stopping the run this year and I wouldn't predict an easy time for K. Jones in the next meeting. He averaged less than 4.0 YPC in the opener, and 3 GB opponents have averaged less than 3.0 YPC against them. Only Cadillac Williams averaged more than 4 (about 4.5 YPC?), and that was mostly a few long runs late in the 4th quarter, averaging just 3 YPC before that.

17
by Joey (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2005 - 9:10pm

The most amazing part of the article was that the law student has time to manage TWO fantasy teams. That's impressive.

As for the article, nice job. To summarize: Absolutely everybody in any way connected to the running game, including Jones, sucks. I wish the Lions luck in correcting that.

18
by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2005 - 11:45am

You know, after this on the train last night, I couldn't help but notice that the entire article can be summarized thusly:

The Lions suck.

Good thing they're in the NFC North.

19
by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2005 - 11:46am

Ok, for some reason, I missed #17, which beat me by 14 hours.

20
by Zac (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2005 - 11:58am

Yeah, the Packers run defense has been pretty good. If the offense hadn't fallen apart, I think it would have been good enough to hide their pass defense problems.

21
by Theo (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2005 - 6:42pm

@ MDS:
f you have the chance to watch R.W. McQuarters’ 49-yard punt return, keep an eye on Baltimore’s No. 83, Daniel Wilcox. He had a clear shot at McQuarters, could have tackled him, and instead ran right past him to shove the Lions’ Wali Rainer. What he was thinking, I can’t imagine, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

I just saw the play-by-play and I can only conclude that there are very big flaws in the matrix.
But my question is;
What the hell are all those offense players doing on the punt team?!
The tackling of some players is just hilarius, like they're diving into a pool.
Just check #87, Darnell Dinkins, miss 2 tackles on one play. That is my nomination for the double sour play of the week.

22
by Mike F (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2005 - 11:24pm

These were very good mechanical points about the Lions run game. I would only add that they've played 3 very tough run Ds - the Bucs who've stopped several decent RBs, the Ravens #2 run D, and the Bears who quickly built a huge lead which meant no more run game for the Lions.

I'm looking forward to getting decent mileage out of KJ from here out (well maybe after Carolina and their #3 run D).

23
by Lions fan with a slightly different view (not verified) :: Sat, 10/15/2005 - 3:01am

I'll address all 7 of your points. I'm a Lions fan who watches each game twice and follows everything going on with the team.

1. No doubt Demulling has been terrible. The worst player on the line. Kosier, who started in San Fran last year, took some snaps from him last game (I think 12) and is expected to against Carolina as well.

2. Tollner's playcalling isn't great, but it hasnt been as terrible as some fans would like to point out. Most of the problems with the offesne have come down to execution. Dropped balls and Harrington's incompetence is hard to blame on Tollner.

3. Paul Smith is a terrible lead blocker. Sledge should be back this week or next. Expect the world of difference for Jones if Sledge comes back where he left off. The Lions had Will Matthews, a UDFA in training camp and should have kept him over Smith. Smith is a Mooch guy and a horrible mistake to be out there. Even Bryson would be a better FB.

4. Kelly Butler has been quite good as a new starter--one play where Tommy Polley made a tackle doesn't change that. Butler shows a mean streak (even gettting with fights with players in practice), something the Lions line has needed for so long. Butler's also the only guy besides Woody on that line who's really capable of getting push in the run game. Butler's faced off against some tough opponents like Simeon Rice and made them a non-factor in the game. I question you've watched enough Lions games to make an analysis if you think Butler's not NFL ready--he's been impressive and claerly improving every game. Let's see how he does against Peppers. Could be great. Could be ugly. I'm not sure. But I do know it iwll be a big test.

5. Charles Rogers' attitude is terrible. I don't think any Lions fans sighed when he was lost 4 gmaes with a suspension. Roy takes off plays too. Mike plays hard...his blocking still needs to improve though. Most rookie WRs do need to learn to block better. Mike has the size and attitude to become a good blocker in time. Kevin Johnson, who will now be the #1 receiver, has been working hard all year. The blocking from the receivers could improve, but considering Jones gets stuffed before he reaches the line 3/4 of the time anyway, I'd hardly consider the wide receiver's blocking a part of the problem.

6. Jones hasn't been finding holes? There's been like 5 holes all season. Have you watched the line?

7. This is just a ridiculous point by you. Jones has been lowering his shoulder more than possibly any back I've seen in the NFL. He's loving the contact and playing with such a chip on his shoulder. On the goalline, he could have got lower, but that has nothign to do with why his stats are low for the season.

Let me add a few points, THE MAIN POINTS, as to why Jones' numbers aren't what fantasy owners expected. THe points I CAN'T believe you missed.

1. Joey Harrington has been terrible. How was he not mentioned in your article? His play has been repugnant. Atrocious. Heartwrenching. Pick your adjective. Teams have been daring him to beat them and he's failed. Time and time again. Teams are scared of KJ. Teams stack 8 or 9 in the box. Teams are aiming to shut down the run. When KJ gets the ball, the defense is ready.

2. The offensive line is not a good run blocking unit--at all. It doesn't help that teams are stacking the box. The Lions left side of the line, Backus-Demulling-Raiola, don't get any push and get pushed backwards on most, if not all, running plays.

3. The Lions have played TOUGH defenses. Green Bay's dfense has surprised this year, and the Lions have also played Tampa, Baltimore and Chicago--3 arguably top 5 defenses. I haven't checked your DVOA or whatever its called, but I bet theyre ranked high up there. The Lions haven't been trying to raack up the points on them; they've been trying to run hard at them, eat up some clock and play tough defense--and, except agianst Chicago and a fluke call against Tampa, it's worked.

The point is KJ is missing his lead blocker (Schlessinger), his OL is adjusting and not a good run-blcoking unit to begin wth, teams are stacking the box to stop him and the inept QB and underachieving WRs haven't done anything to help him, and the Lions have faced some tough run defenses. The problem has NOT been KJ himself, which I realize you established, but I think you missed on some key points.

KJ has ran hard all season. he's made runs out of ntohing. His YPC is higher than most backs would have starting in Detroit. He's gotten hit early and bounced off guys to make more yards. The announcers in the Baltimore game were consistently raving about how he turned a sure loss into a 2 yard carry, or a 3 yard rush. He's been the heart of the offense and played damn incredibly. Sorry fantasy football owners, but maybe if Garcia and Slchlessinger get back soon and the Lions (opponent's run defense) schedule eases up, expect KJ to produce how you expected.

24
by ward (not verified) :: Sat, 10/15/2005 - 8:37am

I agree completely with #23. this article didn't even mention how bad the blocking, quarterback, and receiver has been.

25
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sat, 10/15/2005 - 5:19pm

One reason Jones hasn't done anything is his QB is out, and so are a bunch of WRs. Garcia isn't that bad, but there's no one to throw to. The only option is to run the ball, and teams know this. They can't keep teams off balance by passing, since the recievers will probobly drop it. To sum it up, Jones has been horrible because he plays for a bad, injury-ridden team. I'll bet he can't wait until his contract expires.

::Nathan

26
by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2005 - 12:29am

There is a PFP cover curse. I just noticed it when reading the book the other day.

Ron Mexico? Battling injuries.
Curtis Martin? Has done absolutely nothing. Arguably the worst starting RB in the league this season (well, him, Jamal Lewis and...)
Kevin Jones? Been pretty bad so far.
David Akers? Gets injured, has missed most of season thus far.
Rodney Harrison? Tore 3 ligaments in his knee. Barely got to play this season.

The only one not affected was Matt Hasselbeck, and that's because his name was misspelled.

27
by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 10/16/2005 - 12:33am

Oh, and you could even throw in Hasselbeck losing both his starting WRs.